Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Great, Great, Great Hearts Cluster ...

Posted By on Thu, Sep 20, 2012 at 12:09 PM

... Or, as Mark Twain once observed, "God made the idiot for practice, and then He made the school board."

We now reach that beautiful and poignant moment in the telling of the story — that being the application of Great Hearts, an Arizona charter school group, to run a school in Nashville — that journalists covet so dearly: the crystalline moment when chaos spreads exponentially across the land, rational expectations fall to irrational outcomes, and nobody can tell what the F is going on.

Dear nation, we are now at that moment.

Predictions would be unwise. The cast of characters — unusually headstrong, all of them — are likely to produce a plot line that runs, well, about like Chris Johnson.

To recap, and these are only the basics — Great Hearts applies to open charter schools in Nashville. The school board denies its application, mostly because the school that Great Hearts decides to open first, in a fine enough part of town, will not ensure diversity. The state overrules that decision. This goes back and forth. Ultimately, the school boards stick to its guns — application denied. The state then withholds money from the school board to the tune of several million dollars.

The people seethe, rejoice, consider options, etc.

(Before I proceed, a disclosure: I was once the chairman of the board of Lead Academy, a local charter school. I got a dog in the fight.)

In the interests of deconstructing what has gone on, and to provide a textual analysis, here is the starring cast:

The applying charter school

Great Hearts Academies is a successful charter management organization out of Phoenix. Though the school is the protagonist here — and Shakespeare would be proud — it becomes virtually irrelevant to the telling of the story, falling victim to widening and widening gyres of opinion that overwhelm its central mission of just wanting to open a school and go about its job of educating kids.

The Plutocrats

Townes Duncan, John Eason, Bill DeLoache and others — wise elders, West Nashville-centric, longtime ideological supporters of choice in public schools — seek out Great Hearts to run a group of schools here. As charter operators have rushed into the city in recent years to serve a predominantly poor and minority audience, the plutocrats entertain the notion that someone should consider operating a charter in a part of town where parents often automatically consider private establishments rather than public ones, that being West Nashville. Rather naively, the plutocrats decide around the same time to get very involved in local school board races, thus opposing many of the people whose votes they might ultimately need when Great Hearts comes before the board. Truth be told, as soon as they mention a school in an area where a lot of white people live, it just goes to hell in a handbasket.

The school board

Still apparently running at half-speed, owing to the aggregated scar tissue from years and years of desegregation plans and racial hyper-sensitivity, not to mention epochal periods of utter organizational incompetence, the board members (or at least some of them) eyeball their new political antagonists (the plutocrats) and transmogrify them into a tour-de-force image of a size-2 Suburban-driving mom dropping off her child in the hook-up line with a flourish of hugs and kisses and au revoirs.

In other words, the Plutocrats and Great Hearts come to represent a desire to educate only white kids in wealthy neighborhoods. In a flash, the debate goes from metrics regarding average annual yearly progress on the state achievement tests to disputes surrounding social justice and race and equity.

Day-to-day, city fathers, and also parents of schoolchildren, begin calling into question the school board's ability to function coherently. The board finds itself in a quagmire: having broken the law, screwed up its finances, antagonized the state, and done something that in the minds of most reformist educational folks is just plain stupid.

The mayor

Karl Dean, after a moment of thoughtful Hamlet-esque indecision when Great Hearts first applies, ends up siding with the Plutocrats, one of whom is his wife's cousin. But the inherent ineffectiveness in his sideline role stems from the fact that the school board, not the mayor, runs the system, even though the mayor — and his own legislative body, the Metro Council — must provide the money on which the schools run. A couple of years back, Dean did in fact seriously entertain a scenario in which he would take over control of the entire school system, as have other city mayors. Surely as he gazes at the mirror in the morning he rethinks that decision.

Haslam and his education team

Headstrong, never in doubt and peopled by some of the more respected actors in national education reform circles, the Haslam team (Kevin Huffman, Chris Barbic, etc.) should never be doubted when they threaten to withhold funds from the Metro school board. But of course, the school board blinks. Though Haslam himself sometimes projects a milquetoast benevolence and aw-shucks ideology, his inner education circle has backgrounds in the trenches of charter schools management and Teach for America, and they hammer the board. Boom.

The state Democrats in the legislature
Almost comically archaic, doomed to extinction anyway, and so wildly out of touch on the issue as to offend parents of schoolchildren everywhere, a smattering of Davidson County Democratic lawmakers try to defend the school board by turning the issue into state vs. local control of our schools. But in fact, they're simply mouthing longstanding Democratic support for the teachers' labor organizations, even though their president, Barack Obama, started severing that horrible communion several years ago. But I guess they didn't get the memo.

The teacher's union

Virtually irrelevant.

The parents

In perhaps the most wonderful development of all, parents — apparently working in concert with Metro Council member Emily Evans of West Nashville, according to a news story in this morning's Tennessean — discover a provision in state law that allows them to convert their public schools into charters if they, the parents, vote to do so. Thus confronted with a mayor unable to do anything, a school board that doesn't do anything, and a governor who finds himself only able to withhold money from a system that needs more of it, the parents consider a legally authorized revolution of their own undertaking. Huzzah!

More later ...

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